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Margaret Storm Jameson and the London PEN Centre: Mobilising Commitment1

Jennifer BIRKETT

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  • 1  The research for the project from which this paper was written (a literary biography of Margaret S (...)

1Founded in London in October 1921 by Mrs. C. A. Dawson Scott, PEN (“Poets, Essayists and Novelists”) started life as a literary dining club, on the American model. Its beginnings were explicitly apolitical – refusal to take any particular political stand was one of the founding principles – and politeness was its watchword. John Galsworthy was invited to be first President, in preference to H. G. Wells, partly because he was “big enough to act as a magnet to draw in all the rest,” but mostly because he had no enemies: “He is charming, delightful, a pleasant speaker, has infinite tact. And he’s a gentleman. H. G. isn’t” (Watts 98). Galsworthy remained President until his death in January 1933. By then, the times were changing, and the ungentlemanly Wells would be the choice to replace him. Wells took over just in time to lead the London Centre’s protests to the exile of Ernst Toller and Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and then to chair the 11th PEN Congress in Dubrovnik. There he ensured that the German Centre was made to answer for its failure to protest against the Burning of the Books in 1933, the ill treatment of intellectuals in Germany, and the Berlin Centre’s withdrawal of membership rights for Communists. At the next international meeting, the German Centre was formally expelled. In the next few years, Wells struggled with varying success to reconcile some members’ demands that PEN stay out of politics with the imperative to speak out in defence of such as the Marxist Ludwig Renn and the pacifist Carl von Ossietsky. On his retirement in 1936, he was succeeded briefly by J. B. Priestley, and then by Henry Nevinson, but times were changing again. As war drew nearer, both the founders and officers of PEN recognised an urgent need for a different kind of leadership. Margaret Storm Jameson, the young Turk recruited to the committee in the mid-1930s, held the English Presidency during much of the Second World War, from September 28 1938, just before Chamberlain returned from Munich, until her resignation in April 1944. The dining and the clubbing continued, but the networks they sustained were put to the service of a new kind of institution. The liberal preoccupations of the literary grandees of pre-war PEN and the outspoken left-wing politics of the younger generation of engaged writers were brought together, to create a broad ground for uncompromising speech and committed action. It was the ground that wartime Britain – and Europe – needed for their survival, and Jameson was uniquely placed to preside over its making. This essay will examine how her own socialist commitment came to marry effectively with the goals of wartime PEN, indicate some of the key networks and contacts she harnessed to the work of the institution, and point to the changes she envisaged for Western society, after the war, to which she hoped this newly-mobilised PEN could contribute.

2Jameson was Mrs Dawson  Scott’s choice in 1937 to be Secretary to Henry Nevinson’s President. Of the then Committee, she was clearly the best prospect. She was known nationally and internationally. In publishing circles, she had friends and contacts worldwide, both as a result of her work in the 1920s as the young London representative of A. A. Knopf and the growing reputation of her own writing. Her novels were well-distributed in both Britain and the United States, and already, by the 1930s, were reaching Europe in translation. Her journalism appeared both in small left-wing reviews and the popular national press. In the 1920s, she had enjoyed the patronage of her elders, from Orage to Galsworthy and Forster, and in the 1930s, she mixed with a younger generation of engaged writers. She wrote for Edgell Rickword, she corresponded with James Hanley and helped him publish, and she attended an early meeting of the Writers’ Committee of the Anti-War Council, in October 1933 or 1934, where W. H. Auden, she was relieved to note, was also present (JN I, 307). She had close connections with both radical and conservative politicians in the Labour movement, and with trade unionists. Through her second husband, Guy Chapman, she had links with influential political journalists, radical academics, and various highly-placed figures in the cultural and military establishment.

3Her commitment to socialism was probably not part of Mrs Dawson Scott’s calculation, though it certainly seems to have done her no harm. She brought to PEN a radical past stretching back thirty years, in which she had shared most of the experiences of contemporaries across the whole range of the expanding British middle classes, and her life touched, at the extremes, both aristocracy and working classes. Each decade of the first half of the twentieth century had seen her engaging with its key social and political issues, and always from the left. She was, in every sense of the word, a representative intellectual of her generation.

4Jameson’s formative years were the 1910s, the period of her Yorkshire adolescence. She was part of the cohort of impoverished middle-class (and a very few working-class) young people who profited from the national expansion of education in that decade. Scholarships were provided to enable the brightest children to stay on in secondary education, and then to enter the expanding university system. The intention was to turn them into the teachers and trainers of a new workforce that would make Britain more competitive in European and international markets. She went to the prestigious Scarborough Municipal School, famous for encouraging the bright children of the less well-to-do, and then to a recently-established Leeds University. She could have gone on to be an inspiring headmistress, a university academic, or a fairly high-up civil servant in the Ministry of Education. But at school in Scarborough she met the charismatic Harland brothers, from a family of extremely poor dalesmen, and from them learned the thrill of ideas, especially political ideas, and the commitment to social justice she retained all her life. They introduced her to Orage’s journal, The New Age, and through it the three discovered together H. G. Wells, Anatole France in his Dreyfusard and Voltairean mode, a conviction that education for opportunity and freedom was the way forward for the working classes, and a loathing for the bureaucratic elitism of Fabian socialism. At Leeds University, between 1909 and 1912, she acquired a reputation as a socialist and feminist activist; and from that time on, industrial society and the intellectual were inseparable in her imagination:

How convey the spirit of those north-country universities? Oxford is in another world. … As I walked about Leeds, I felt around me and under my feet the pulse of a vast machine. I might be in a university library bent over an Anglo-Saxon grammar but five minutes’ walk brought me to the place where, through a gap in the houses, I stared at the ring of factories closing in the town on three sides. By day hideous, at night flames writhed from the chimneys – that was indescribably beautiful and exciting. (No Time Like the Present 52)

5Her 1930s trilogy, The Mirror in Darkness, which models the forces at work in British society in the early 1920s that led to the making, and then the collapse, of the General Strike in 1926, traces a period in which politics for her took second place to personal matters (her first husband’s infidelity, a divorce, and her marriage with Chapman, their joint struggle to establish his publishing firm, her attempts to make a name in popular journalism, and her first operation for serious illness). By the end of 1926, at the latest, she was a member of PEN, and developing a close friendship there with Amabel Williams-Ellis, John Strachey’s sister and daughter of St. Loe Strachey, founder of The Spectator (letter from Jameson to Hermon Ould, 1st December 1926, in the Storm Jameson Collection, Letters from Storm Jameson to PEN, Folder 1926-38, HRC). Her activities at that point would seem still to have been more social than socialist. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, returned to her political commitment, she was working with local activists in the Labour Party in Whitby and Scarborough and making her first European political contacts with trade unionists. She was one of the many outraged by the treachery of Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowden and their ditching of the socialist ambitions of the Labour Party for the budget-balancing of the National Government. She was back in London in 1932 when Chapman enrolled at the London School of Economics to study social and economic history with R. H. Tawney, Harold Laski, Laurence Hogben, Eileen Power, and a whole generation of radical academics investigating the relationship of culture and society.

6She joined the pacifist movement early, in 1931-2 (Ceadel 107), and became the unsung editor of the collection of essays, Challenge to Death, that in the Autumn of 1933 she agreed to organise for Philip Noel-Baker (JN I, 327). Alongside herself and Guy Chapman figured Vera Brittain and her husband George Catlin, Winifred Holtby, Rebecca West, Philip Noel Baker, the journalists Gerald Barry and Vernon Bartlett, Edmund Blunden, Julian Huxley, and J. B. Priestley; Viscount Cecil produced the Foreword. She was by now painfully alert to the persecution of intellectuals in Europe, and was pressing Hermon Ould to urge Wells to act in their defence (letters from Jameson to Hermon Ould, 20th and 23rd January 1934, Ms [PEN] Recip. Jameson, Storm, 1897-, 3rd folder 1930-39, HRC). When Wells refused to allow a collective PEN protest to Goebbels on behalf of Ludwig Renn, she wrote her own letter for Ould to send on; she was conscious, though, she told him, that her left-wing reputation would diminish the value of her intervention – and her friends, she added, were all further left than she was (letter from Jameson to Ould, 6th February 1934, as above). On July 7th 1934, along with others on the left, including Aldous Huxley, Vera Brittain, and Dick Sheppard, all like herself future founding members of the Peace Pledge Union, she attended Oswald Mosley's Olympia meeting (Ceadel 153). Horrified by the brutality, she wrote to the Daily Telegraph to describe the scene:

A young woman carried past me by five Blackshirts, her clothes half torn off and he mouth and nose closed by the large hand of one; her head was forced back by the pressure and she must have been in considerable pain. I mention her especially since I have seen a reference to the delicacy with which women interrupters were left to women Blackshirts. This is merely untrue. … Why train decent young men to indulge in such peculiarly nasty brutality? (Jameson, cit. Cross 114)

7Collective action to build a Popular Front became an imperative. On 6th June 1936, under the title “A Popular Front,” Time and Tide published her letter challenging the editorial view of the operations of the Popular Front in France, and giving her explanation of why French socialists were so much more effective than the Labour Party. The French, she argued, understood the need to build a united front from the grassroots up, not by rhetoric from the top:

What is necessary is a realization of the futility and sterility of a Left Bloc of leaders, which would fall apart at the first corner without having taken a single step towards the creation of a common front against reaction. There is a powerful feeling in this country against Fascism (and an equally powerful ignorance of the extent to which Fascism is achieving its essential purposes without any unnecessary display), but it has no central rallying point. Its natural rallying point is the Labour Party, if that Party were not so busy rehearsing its funeral obsequies and handing itself wreaths – saying it with flowers in its hair. The reanimation of the Labour Party – by (1) a change in its constitution. The statement that the Labour Party is ruled by the Trade Unions is delusive. As constituted, it is ruled by a narrow oligarchy of Trade Union leaders, as much out of touch with their rank and file as is the executive of the Labour Party with the Party rank and file. (2) An alliance, on the basis of an exactly defined programme, with the progressive Liberals, I.L.P. and Communist Party, as distinct from a shabby vote-catching agreement between leaders – is a preliminary step towards the only form of Popular Front worth voting for.

Apart from a people’s front, what indeed is there to hope for in the political future? And without it, what hope of averting the eventual triumph of reaction by the default of the Labour Party? The last election showed plainly that an electorate which is certainly not Fascist in will has little confidence in the Party as it exists. There are no signs that such confidence is growing, but there are many signs pointing the other way to a growing fear of and distaste for the policy of the National Government. The confidence withheld from the Labour Party could be roused only for a genuine Popular Front. In this connection I should like to draw attention to a lively series of articles which has been appearing in the Labour Monthly, wherein Labour M.P.s and candidates, and other active members of the Party, have been stating the real views of the Party itself, as distinct from the inscriptions on the official tombstones. The current issue, containing the very candid advice of Mr. Aneurin Bevan, and a clear and careful analysis of the Popular Front, is required reading for any understanding of the problems involved. (Time and Tide, XVII, 23: 811)

8She herself, it turned out, was adept at building from the grassroots. When she became President, the PEN Committee was a group of people full of good intentions and lacking clear leadership. Henry Nevinson, in his day a pioneering socialist journalist and supporter of women’s suffrage, was tired and ill, and nearing the end of his life, but still full of righteous anger against fascist atrocity. On 24th August 1939, the Committee minuted that he had written to protest against a poem published in the Bulletin of the Rome PEN Centre that glorified Mussolini’s destruction of the Abyssinians, and described the victims as black ants. Of those who attended the first meeting she chaired of the London PEN Centre Executive Committee, on 26th October  1938, most were minor writers and modest people. J. B. Priestley’s designation of them as mostly second-raters was unkind; they played their part. They included Richard Church, exponent of poetry and pastoral, the novelist and poet L. A. G. Strong, the children’s writers, Eleanor Farjeon and Noel Streatfeild, and the novelists Alec Waugh and Irene Rathbone. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, novelist and broadcaster, was elected at that meeting, as was Jameson’s young hotly socialist friend from Berlin, Lilo Linke. Some of them had radical pasts, several had pacifist presents, and most of them were middle-class and middle-aged. The Grand Old Men of the day, E. M. Forster and H. G. Wells, lent their names readily when asked. In the course of the war, Jameson recruited new young members from the left (John Lehmann and Stephen Spender), and would have liked to attract more. But the distinctive strength of the institution that she and Hermon Ould jointly took on in 1938 lay in the rootedness of its leading figures in British establishment culture, and its consequent ability to supply safe ground where individuals unused or, at best, grown unused, to the intensity of political action could come to fresh engagements. In less than a year, Jameson had her Committee drafting manifestoes for the political PEN of the future. Irene Rathbone, who quickly became a close and loyal friend, returned her own version promptly, declaring that politics had now become ethics, and certain events and states of affairs must be condemned on ethical grounds. A club for culture, she concluded, couldn’t evade its responsibilities to the rest of society (letter from Irene Rathbone to Margaret Storm Jameson, June 1939, PEN MISC. PEN Congress, Stockholm, HRC).

9Only someone in Jameson’s position, as Ould often assured her, could have led PEN at this time, and, he might have added, someone with her skills of organisation, manipulation, charm (a smiling Tartuffe, she called herself), and an enormous capacity for hard work. His own qualities were at least equal, and in the first years of the war, President and Secretary together created a unique institution within British cultural politics. Through its practical interventions and general networking, PEN helped draw the scattered energies of the British and European cultural community into the service of the Allied war effort. Under Jameson’s leadership, what stayed at the forefront was the aim of creating through that effort a very different post-war world, one based on social justice, collective responsibility, and freedom of thought.

10This was a battle for the home front, long before it was a battle for Europe, and Jameson and PEN were firmly aligned with those who believed that the war that was being fought against Hitler was not primarily one of nationalist boundaries but of political philosophies and cultural values. Fighting for war, and fighting for social change, could not be separated.

11In the first and blackest year of the war, Jameson was deeply pessimistic. Writing in November 1940 to her friend, the writer and sculptor Valentine Dobrée, about the weight of official wartime duties she had undertaken on behalf of PEN, her struggles with the Home Office over the refugee writers from Europe in PEN’s care, and the desolation she had seen for herself in the bombed-out East End, she saw little chance of so much effort finding its reward. The war, she thought, would go on until everyone was exhausted, too exhausted to fight for a social revolution, and then the men with the money would cheat the people yet again (letters from Jameson to Valentine Dobrée, 12th and 25th November 1940, LSC). By the following year, prospects appeared more hopeful. The International Congress that English PEN held in September 1941, “Literature and the World after the War,” supported by the Ministry of Information and the British Council and attended by writers, diplomats, ambassadors, and heads of state from all the Allied countries, was a demonstration of Allied unity; but it also set out a socialist message that transcended national boundaries. The audience of grandees and political refugees listened as Jameson, in her Presidential address on “The Duty of the Writer,” set out the double need for unity and social reform: “We [Allies] have a great many things we do not want to preserve – the dole, the outrageous wastage of child life. The force that really opposes the Nazis is … the need, the only half-conscious impulse, of Western civilization to renew itself’ (“Duty,” 13-14). This was the period when Denis Saurat, Director of the Institut Français where the Congress was held, a close contact of both Ould and Jameson, was engaged on a parallel mission to persuade General de Gaulle that the advocacy of social reform was the way to rally to his banner the people of both Britain and France (Saurat archive, Archives of the Institut Français). PEN Committee members were welcome contributors to the journal La France libre, edited by André Labarthe and Alain, based in the Institut and circulated widely in London and Occupied France, which made no secret of its socialist sympathies. In February 1942, the journal included a substantial essay by Walter Hill on the Beveridge Report, “Affranchir l’homme de la misère.”

12In that same year, Jameson took the appeal for socialist unity from Europe to the United States. In her Introduction to London Calling, a collection of essays, poems and stories she had edited for the Ministry of Information, to be sold for the benefit of American servicemen (JN II, 116-20), she appealed over the heads of government to the interests of the “common people” of both countries, who, she said, could talk to each other “past the Great Irresponsibles [...] you are not going to tell me that the appalling disasters - slums, crises, wars, not to speak of the enthusiasms of this century, are the work of responsible minds [...] It is a pity that our voices the voices of the true America, the true England, without affectation, second thoughts, cleverness are not louder. The headlines - it is their speciality - ignore us” (London Calling 5-6).

13In defence of freedom of thought, PEN’s President established her interventions in a familiar liberal tradition. In “Apology for My Life,” the Introduction to her essay collection Civil Journey, written in September 1938, she referred to the report of the conference organised by Paul Valéry’s Institut International de Coopération Intellectuelle, published in July 1937 as Le Destin prochain des lettres (“The Future of Literature”). The report was worth reading, she said, “for other reasons than the interest of knowing the mind on this question of such men as Valéry, Romains, Madariaga, Huizinga, Duhamel, Forster.” The “other reasons” were the frightening diversity of the nationalist positions that were emerging on freedom of thought, not least the fact that “There were no German writers. The Italians found offensive the words liberté de pensée in the text of the resolution” (14). The Appeal to the Conscience of the World, which she drafted in September 1939 and which was sent out in the joint names of International PEN and the London Centre on 24th May 1940 to newspapers and journals in all allied Countries, linked freedom of word and thought and the free movement of ideas to the defence of the dignity and freedom of the common man. This was the same connection she had made in her article of October 7th 1939 in the Times Literary Supplement, “Fighting the Foes of Civilization: The Writer’s Place in the Defence Line.” Designating France and Britain as traditionally the joint defenders of “European civilization,” she gave there her own definition of that civilization, as something where the ideal still to be fought for was “the reflection of a precise idea of human dignity.” She listed the abuses writers had to challenge in that cause, from anti-semitism to nationalism, and at the centre of her list came class oppression and the suppression of free speech. From the last world war, she quoted Tawney’s letter from “a soldier,” printed anonymously in The Spectator and Nation in October 1915, attacking the betrayal by civilians of the principles of social justice for which the soldiers in the ranks were fighting. It was, she said, the writer’s duty to stop that happening again, by challenging bigotry and oppression, and by fighting to allow ideas free passage across frontiers:

A modern dictator who is able to turn ideas back at the frontiers of his State does civilisation a far worse turn than if he merely destroyed roads. Anything that a writer can do, to cheat the dictator’s police, he ought. […] This is not asking him to be, in the glib phrase, internationally-minded – no writer has ever been more deeply and fully English than he whom the Germans call “unser Shakespeare.” But it requires him to be certain that civilisation is sinking in Europe because the communications have broken down, that his duty is to restore them everywhere; that his fellow-countrymen are Čapek, Unamuno, Einstein, Rilke, Freud, Mann, rather than some he went to school with. Even this phrase is misleading, since he must have gone to school with these too.

14The rhetoric was matched by practical action. From 1933, intellectuals fleeing before Hitler had sought the protection of colleagues in PEN Centres across Europe. Ould and Jameson worked in close cooperation with their friend Benjamin Crémieux, the Secretary of the Paris Centre, until he too vanished into the concentration camp where he met his death. In September 1939, there were over sixty thousand German and Austrian and around eight thousand Czech refugees in Britain. PEN’s energies were concentrated on finding out who were the writers among them and making contact, appealing for funds, writing supporting letters for visas into Britain and out to the United States and Canada, helping find accommodation, helping with publication and translation, trying to keep them out of the British internment camps, and then, from the end of June 1940, when all male refugees over the age of seventy were declared subject to internment, trying to extricate them (Calder 130-33). PEN was formally appointed by the Home Office to advise on the standing of internees in their field, through an Advisory Committee consisting of Jameson, Ould, Professor Ifor Evans, and Professor L. A. Willoughby (Minutes of the London Executive Committee of PEN, 31st October 1940, HRC). As well as looking after the interests of individuals, the London Centre helped establish Centres-in-Exile for Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Catalonia, Norway, so that they could resume independent activities. When, with all this work under way, Jules Romains, the International President, who had fled to the United States in June 1940, set up in New York his European Centre of PEN, and proclaimed his the only voice left to speak for European culture, the fury in London was considerable.

15The freedoms PEN was called on to protect were mostly those of minor writers. As Jameson noted, great men could easily find sponsors and asylum: “our exiles were not famous writers – these could make shift to live anywhere” (JN II, 19). This did not make it easier to collect funds or rally sympathy on their behalf, and the work was harder since so many of them were suffering on account of political allegiances of a kind that British governments had for the past forty years been working to suppress. Rudolf Olden, leader of the German Group, expostulated in a letter of 26th November 1938 on the treatment of a German publisher suspected of Communist leanings who had been denied entry to Britain. Of course, Olden wrote, the anti-Nazi opposition had Communist ties, because it had the same form as the Popular Front: Hitler’s persecutions made no distinctions over party lines (letter to Hermon Ould, PEN MISC., Refugee Writers Fund, PEN archive, HRC).

16The post-war world, as Jameson envisaged it, and argued for it, would be very differently ordered. Her article in the TLS of October 1939 spoke of the need to imagine for Europe a new kind of future, beyond the nationalisms that had destroyed the old:

A correspondent in The Times wrote lately: “We have no other aim than to destroy Hitlerism and no elaboration of that simple purpose should be permitted.” The writer cannot allow himself to share this comforting simplicity. He cannot think in terms of destroying Hitlerism, but only of saving the Europe of which England is a part, of imagining for Europe a future from which the poison of nationalism has been drawn.

17Her presidential address in September 1941, “The Duty of the Writer,” returned to the same point, and was enthusiastically supported by delegates:

In 1919 the men responsible for making the peace started off several young nations into the future. Not enough of us understood then that a team of sovereign national States is not the only possible or natural, or the most viable political order. That in fact it ran counter to the hope of a peace based on reason. […] The writer’s other duty – I am thinking of English writers, not being in any way competent to talk to the others about their particular duty – is to persuade the English that we are responsible to Europe, and cannot out of indifference or modesty evade our responsibility. […] Only a fool would make light of the immense difficulties of creating a new European order: only Englishmen who are ignorant, or tired, or discouraged, will refuse to make the effort.

18Her article “The New Europe,” published in January 1940 in The Fortnightly, had been more specific about the form the new order should take. It identified “economic nationalism” as the great obstacle to unity, declared that “There must be an end to the present uneconomic and brutish disorder with its waste of life and wealth,” and nominated the key issues to be addressed:

The first essential of peace and order in Europe is a limitation of sovereignty. […] International conferences and leagues or associations of independent States are useless without the machinery of economic co-operation. The power to control trade and finance, to deal with other States and groups of States, to control and limit armaments, to enforce respect for international law, to control the use of raw materials, to govern and educate in colonial territories and to prepare them for self-government, to reconstruct and develop certain social services in Europe (e.g. communications, medicine), should be handled by a federal European Council, or Parliament – what does the name matter? (76-7)

19Beyond this, however, she never clarified her thinking. She was hostile to the concept of the iron and steel consortium in which the future European Community first began to evolve, after the war, and at various points in the 1950s she made it plain that, forced to choose between a world dominated by American capitalism and one dominated by Russian Communism, she would prefer the latter, though neither option was desirable. In the essay, “A Note on France,” which she published in The Cornhill Magazine on her return from a seven-month visit to France October 1953-May 1954, she presented sympathetically the position of a French wine-grower friend who would rather, he said, be overrun by Russians than protect Europe’s borders on behalf of American capital:

“A French government with the moral courage of any poor devil of a soldier […] would order America to withdraw its occupying troops, and invite the rest of Western Europe to join us in a neutrality pact which would satisfy the Russians that they had nothing to fear in Europe. If Mr. Eisenhower felt compelled to go on issuing his challenges, it would be his funeral, not ours. […] There are moments when I believe that nothing will save France except a Russian occupation. If it doesn’t last more than five or six years. Longer would be the death of us.” (446-7)

20In 1940, she had thought that Europe would provide a middle way. But what this would be was never established. As the war continued, the terms in which Jameson and PEN spoke of the future had little to do with economics, and much more with ethics and culture. In the Spring of 1943, the collapse of Olaf Stapledon’s enquiry on behalf of PEN into writers’ “fundamental values,” as well as Arthur Koestler’s attempt to edit an anthology of short stories predicting the shape of the future, should have shown the growing resistance of the public mind to idealist phrase-making. But Jameson and her colleagues persisted, arguing that the old cultural order of Europe could be reborn, to become the foundation of a new economic order. The key as she saw it was that the heart of the European cultural heritage was the humanist and rationalist tradition whose origins she attributed to France – the republic founded in revolution, which might yet produce a socialist future, with a human face.

21Jameson’s novel, Cloudless May, published in September 1943, exploring the political and psychological circumstances of the defeat of France in the Spring of 1940, set out what she believed France had come to represent for Europe in her generation. It was the ideal example of how civil society should be lived: by communities of individuals conscious of their collective rootedness in the long history of their local landscape, who combined that sense of local origins with the knowledge that they were also a working part of the history and culture of their country, and of the larger community of Europe. This triple allegiance was the model for the nature of citizenship in the new European order. In September 1941, closing the PEN Congress, she had described how French schoolchildren were “shaped by their childhood in a French province […]. Yet by a trick of which the French provinces have so far kept the secret, these school-children often grow up to be Europeans while remaining as French as their choice of words” (“Le 17e Congrès […]” 395-99).

22Set in the valley of the Loire, the cradle of the European Renaissance, Cloudless May gave Jameson the opportunity to show how what she saw as the highest ideals of humanist and rationalist culture – freedom and justice - had been eroded since the first world war by the struggles for power between classes, as much as nations. A new moral and social Renaissance, in the name of social justice, was what France and Europe should have been fighting for. The Prussian ex-soldier, Joachim von Uhland, a revolutionary socialist and a Jew, who had fled Hitler only to end up in a French internment camp, waiting for the Nazis to arrive, explains to the French captain, Rienne, who will be left to continue the fight, that: “France, the true France, is going to be defeated for a time. It’s unfortunate for you French – and for Europe – that you are fighting a war when you ought to have been looking for a Renaissance. Which is overdue” (392). The overdue Renaissance of the Common Man is also acknowledged remorsefully by the local Bishop (“we have not been common enough”), while the atheist schoolteacher joins with the local priest (“the two poles, the two clarities, the two idealisms, of the French spirit”) to admit their failure to challenge the sterility of a dying bourgeois world (505, 437).

23Cloudless May was published at the moment in the war when the Allies were rallying all their forces for the return of their armies to Europe. Its title, and the accompanying epigraph (“Mai qui fut sans nuages et juin poignardé”), are taken from the popular lament in Le Crève-Coeur for the betrayal of France, written by Louis Aragon, the celebrated poet and leader of the French Communist Resistance (Louis McNeice’s version was published in 1946, in Josephson and Cowley eds 36-37). John Bennett has provided a detailed account of how Aragon became the focus of an organised campaign in London literary circles to reconcile the British public with both Communist sympathizers and defeated French allies, and to help de Gaulle build fences with the Communist Resistance in Occupied France. After that point, however, there was little chance of the “true” France securing the renaissance of the Common Man.

24In PEN itself, working with the French in London became very difficult. Saurat had been sidelined, and the members of de Gaulle’s Comité national with whom PEN had most contact (René Cassin in particular) seemed to Ould and Jameson to have their eyes fixed firmly on making their careers with the General. For Jameson, the task of creating a post-war PEN, let alone building a new European order, began to seem impossible. PEN would have to be rebuilt from the ground up in Europe, she wrote to Ould on 21st September 1943, acknowledging her exhaustion and responding to his depression, and confessing her fears that the task was beginning to appear beyond their collective energy, wisdom and goodwill. For a start, she said, there would have to be much plain speaking at the first Congress. Recriminations started earlier than that. The Paris Centre opened again in November 1944 (and Hermon Ould came back clutching an article from Les Lettres françaises celebrating those French writers who had continued publishing during the Occupation, and grumbling to Jameson in a letter of the 20th that it was easy enough to keep on writing when you weren’t also fighting a war). The blacklists and purges that emerged in short order left Jameson horrified and depressed. She sent Ould a cutting from Vendredi for November 1944, giving the blacklist that had been drawn up of French writers accused of collaboration, together with a copy of a devastating article in an October Time and Tide, G. Turquet Milnes’s “Midnight Books,” which carried details of the deaths of some admired friends in French PEN, including their much-loved colleague and friend Crémieux. She loathed blacklists (she herself appeared on two, Hitler’s and Stalin’s), and she saw settling scores as essentially destructive, though she could also understand the desire for revenge. At the first PEN Congress after the war, in Stockholm, in May 1946, she and Ould did their best to resist the collective attempts of those countries who had suffered occupation, France and others, to impose on PEN a blacklist of writers.  Such conflicts did nothing for PEN’s ability to play any kind of major role in influencing the political directions of either British or European society, though there would still be important work on the cultural front, in translation projects with UNESCO, and even more important work on campaigns for intellectual freedom (Jameson was a member of the first Writers in Prison Committee, set up in 1960). As the Cold War developed, PEN found itself struggling to keep its distance from Communist influence (Jameson was much entertained by Ould’s reports of the first World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace, convened in Wroclaw on 6th August 1948), and then, in the 1950s and 1960s, from the CIA’s incursions into cultural politics (Stonor Saunders, 362-8). That, though, is another story, and in any event, after 1944, responsibility for the Presidency had passed into the hands of Desmond MacCarthy.

25In those few wartime years, Jameson enjoyed an opportunity offered to few writers to proclaim and practice the principles that had driven so many of her essays and novels. Equally, few writers could or would have been prepared not only to make policy for PEN, but to make it happen, devoting to the banalities of committee work, letter-writing, fundraising, politeness to politicians, speechmaking and social networking, the energies and talents that others reserved for their own writing and careers. But as she saw it, there was no alternative. Commitment must be a matter of practical action, not one of mere rhetorical engagement. Otherwise, “Nothing,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Nothing is more ridiculous than a writer, an animal whose response to disaster is a phrase” (JN II, 142).

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B. C. Dobrée correspondence. Brotherton Library, Leeds University, Special Collections (abbreviated to LSC).

Bennett, John. Aragon, Londres et la France libre : réception de l'oeuvre en Grande-Bretagne, 1940. Paris : L’Harmattan, 1998.

Ceadel, Martin. Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945: The Defining of a Faith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Cross, Colin. The Fascists in Britain. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1961.

Denis Saurat archive, Archives of the Institut Français.

Hill, Walter. “Affranchir l’homme de la misère.” La France libre, Vol. V, N°. 28, 15 février 1942: 287-92.

Jameson, Margaret Storm. No Time Like the Present. London: Cassell and Company Limited, 1933.

——.(ed.) Challenge to Death. London: Constable & Co. Ltd, 1934.

——. “Apology for My Life.” Civil Journey. London: Cassell and Company Limited, 1939.

——.“Fighting the Foes of Civilization: The Writer’s Place in the Defence Line.” TLS , Issue 1966 (7th October 1939).

——. “The New Europe.” The Fortnightly, CXLVII, New Series (January 1940).

——. “The Duty of the Writer.” In Ould, Hermon, (ed.), Writers in Freedom. A Symposium Based on the XVII International Congress of the P.E.N. Club Held in London in September 1941. London: Hutchinson & Co., [1942]).

——. “Introduction.” London Calling. London: Harper, [1942].

——. “Le 17e Congrès International des PEN” par Storm Jameson. La France Libre, II, 11 (15 septembre 1941): 395-99. English version “Creditors of France,” The Writer’s Situation [1950]: 180-88.

——.Cloudless May. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1943.

——.Journey from the North. 2 vol. 1969-70; rpt. London: Virago Press, 2 vols. 1984 (page refs to Virago ed., JN).

Josephson, Hannah and Malcolm Cowley (eds). Aragon: Poet of Resurgent France. London: The Pilot Press Ltd, 1946.

PEN archive, Harry Ransom Center (here abbreviated to HRC), University of Austin, Texas. [Catalogued items are indicated in text. When consulted in April 2005, the Correspondence between Margaret Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould, and the Minutes of the Executive Committee of the London PEN Centre, were recent acquisitions and still uncatalogued.]

Stonor Saunders, Frances. The Cultural Cold War. The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York: The New Press, 1999.

Turquet-Milnes, G. “Midnight Books.” Time and Tide, 25, 43 (21st October 1944).

Watts, Marjorie. Mrs Sappho: The Life of C. A. Dawson Scott, Mother of International P.E.N. London: Duckworth, 1987.

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1  The research for the project from which this paper was written (a literary biography of Margaret Storm Jameson) was generously facilitated by a Research Leave award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, travel awards from the AHRC and the British Academy, and by research leave and travel funding from the University of Birmingham. I should also like to acknowledge the kind assistance provided by the librarians of the Brotherton Library Leeds, the Harry Ransom Center, University of Austin, Texas, and the Institut Français, London.

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Jennifer BIRKETT, « Margaret Storm Jameson and the London PEN Centre: Mobilising Commitment »E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 9, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 26 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Jennifer BIRKETT

University of Birmingham
Jennifer Birkett holds the established Chair of French Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her publications include books and articles on 19th-century Decadence, and on 20th-century women’s writing in French and English. She is co-author of the Macmillan Guide to French Literature and co-editor of the Longman Critical Reader on Samuel Beckett, and was responsible for the latest complete revision and updating of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on French Literature (Middle Ages to present). She has just completed a literary biography of Margaret Storm Jameson, and is about to publish a co-edited collection of essays on this writer (Margaret Storm Jameson: Writing in Dialogue).

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